When Adrienne Penake's son, Brandon, developed a high fever and began wheezing one night, the San Mateo, California, mom knew she had to get her 11-month-old to the local urgent-care center. There was just one problem:
"My husband, Dave, and I had taken the car seat out of my car a few days prior and hadn't set it back up yet. That night, Dave wasn't home and I was unable to connect the clips to the latches in my car," Penake recalls. "After many tries, I just couldn't do it. In a panic, I had to borrow the car of a friend who has kids the same age as mine to get Brandon to the doctor."
Struggling to install a car seat is tough enough on a good day. When you're in a hurry, it can be next to impossible. LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is a system of built-in straps and hooks created to makes car seat installation easier. But despite nearly every car seat and most vehicles manufactured since September 1, 2002, being required to use the LATCH system, we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to simplifying installing a car seat.
Parents aren't the only ones frustrated. So are Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technicians and instructors -- the very people trained to make sure your car seat is safely installed. An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey found that about one third of the CPS techs and instructors reported that parents are less likely to install the seat correctly using the LATCH system than with a seat belt, and 81 percent say that these errors are not obvious to parents. What's more, 55 percent of respondents say they think LATCH needs to be improved.
It didn't help when the 2014 revisions on weight-labeling for LATCH came out. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) now requires the label to essentially warn parents not to use the lower anchors of LATCH once the child and the seat combined reach a weight of more than 65 pounds. Why?
With car seats getting heavier, the concern is that the excess weight could cause the lower anchors to detach during a crash. Once your child exceeds that maximum weight, he can continue to ride in the seat, but you will need to stop using the lower anchors and switch to a seat belt. You should still use the top tether, if possible.
The sad fact remains that with or without LATCH, three out of four car seats are installed improperly, according to NHTSA. "Many parents fail to read both the car-seat instruction manual and their vehicle manual," explains Jennifer Ryan, AAA's director of state relations. "You need to look at your vehicle manual's seat-belt section, LATCH section, and car-seat-installation section."
Since all car seats can also be installed with a seat belt, is using LATCH worth the hassle? It's not a hassle if you have the right vehicle-and-car-seat combination, says Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., a Portland, Oregon, pediatrician, injury-prevention specialist, and CPS technician. But determining that can be tricky; there's no database for parents to consult, and we have to rely on trial and error, he adds. This is why it's so important to get your car and seat checked by a CPS tech to determine how to best install it (find one at cert.safekids.org). For now, be sure you're not making these mistakes before you take your next ride.
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Still confused? Here’s an extra cheat sheet for using the LATCH system in particular:
Lower anchors: These are the small bars in the space between the rear seat backs and the seat cushions; they're used for installing forward- and rear-facing seats
Lower anchor strap: Attached to the bottom of the car seat, the strap has two hooks or buckles, one on each side of the seat.
Top tether anchors: These metal loops can be on the shelf area near the rear window. In minivans and SUVs, they may be on the floor, under the seat, on the ceiling, or, in this photo, on the back of the seat.
Top tether strap: It comes from the top of the car seat and has one hook or buckle at the end.
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